NBA Power Rankings: Brooklyn climbs fast after Harden trade, big wins

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The Lakers are still the team to beat at the top of the rankings, but trading for James Harden and a couple of impressive wins has the Brooklyn Nets shooting up the rankings fast.

 
Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (11-4 Last Week No. 1). Despite taking their foot off the gas in the second half Monday against the Warriors — you can’t do that against Stephen Curry teams — the Lakers are still clear-and-away the best team in the NBA right now. They have the best net rating, the top-ranked defense, and they are fifth in offense — and shooting 39.1% from three as a team. Los Angeles heads out on a seven-game road trip that starts with a good test against Milwaukee Thursday.

 
Clippers small icon2. Clippers (10-4, LW 4). The Clipper offense has been on fire the past couple of weeks, a 122 offensive rating the past seven games (the league average is 111.5), and that is racking them up wins. Paul George remains a key reason for the surge (24.8 points a game, shooting 51% on 8 threes a game), while Kawhi Leonard has been more up and down. Los Angeles ball movement has been spectacular of late and role players are stepping up. All of that covers up a still pedestrian defense so far this season (20th in the league over those same seven games) that has to get better if Los Angeles wants to challenge that team down the hall.

 
Nets small icon 3. Nets (9-6, LW 11). Brooklyn pushed all its chips into the middle of the table trading for James Harden — the Harden/Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving big three is the most expensive trio in the history of the NBA (passing the Warriors three of Curry/Thompson/Green this year). Harden and Durant have had the offense humming and the ball flying around for two games, including an impressive win over the Bucks, and now Kyrie Irving is expected to make his return tonight (Wednesday) in Cleveland. One thing to watch: This team’s defense has struggled the last two games, as expected, and if that continues it will become a playoff issue.

 
Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (9-5, LW 2). How much Jrue Holiday matters to Milwaukee was evident Monday in the loss to Brooklyn. When Holiday got his rest in the fourth quarter, Harden and Durant hunted Pat Connaughton and Dante DiVincenzo for isolation matchups and torched them. The Bucks also need to find a way to get Holiday more involved in the offense, his 19% usage rate is the lowest since his rookie season and too low for a player of his quality. He’s still averaging 15.7 points and 5.1 assists a game, but he can do more.

 
Jazz small icon 5. Jazz (10-4 LW 9). When Rudy Gobert is on the court, the Jazz have a defensive rating of 103, which would be the best in the NBA. When he sits, that jumps by 12.7 to a rating of 115.7, which would rank second-worst in the league. This is more than a “this is why Gobert is in the running for DPOY” note; if the Jazz don’t clean this up, it will be a postseason issue. Utah has won six in a row, including a quality win against Denver last week, and they have been able to stay coronavirus free, which helps.

 
Celtics small icon 6. Celtics (8-4, LW 3). He looked rusty (3-of-13 shooting) and had to leave early after an elbow to the ribs, but having Kemba Walker back in the rotation is huge for the Celtics offense (especially with Jayson Tatum still out). The Celtics remain shorthanded due to COVID-19, but if that means more Tacko Fall time it’s a win for everybody. Good tests Wednesday and Friday night against the 76ers (come on basketball gods, give us some Tacko vs. Embiid).

 
Pacers small icon 7. Pacers (8-5, LW 8). Indiana was one of the winners of the Harden trade: Victor Oladipo wanted out and was likely bolting as a free agent, and in his place they end up with a quality scoring wing in Caris LeVert who is under contract for a couple of years after this one. The biggest winner of the trade was LeVert himself because doctors found a small mass on his kidney during an MRI that was part of Indiana’s physical — that find may save his life. There is no timeline for LeVert’s return to the court, but that is not near the important part of this story.

 
Spurs small icon 8. Spurs (8-6, LW 15). This year’s edition in San Antonio has some classic Spurs trademarks: A top-10 defense (currently 9th in the league), and they don’t beat themselves (lowest turnover rate in the league, top 10 in defensive rebounding and opponent free throw rate). Add to that maybe the best bench unit in the league led by Patty Mills and Rudy Gay, and you have the makings of a play-off, or at least play-in games, team in the West. The Spurs showed all that with a quality win on MLK day beating the Trail Blazers.

 
Blazers small icon 9. Trail Blazers (8-6, LW 7). Brutal week for Portland with two of its three best players breaking bones and now out for extended periods. CJ McCollum is out a month with a broken foot; he had been playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 26.7 points a game and being more aggressive from beyond the arc (and hitting 44.1% of those). Jusuf Nurkic averaged 10.3 points and 7.6 rebounds a game, plus he keeps the ball moving and is a critical defensive anchor. This team was not right without him. It all puts more on the shoulders of Damian Lillard and the Blazer role players.

 
Suns small icon 10. Suns (7-5 LW 5). Phoenix is a little hard to get a read on because they’ve become a team that plays up or down to the level of their competition — they beat a good Pacers team on Saturday, but sandwiched around that were losses to Detroit and Washington. Phoenix’s defense has been terrible its last five games — a 117.5 defense rating, via Cleaning the Glass — and a lot of that is because their starting five are getting torched on that end. Good test coming up with two against Denver.

 
Sixers small icon 11. 76ers (9-5 LW 6). What impact will the trade talk have on Ben Simmons? He was very close to being part of a deal that brought James Harden to Philadelphia, sometimes that throws guys off their game and sometimes it motivates them. In the two games since the trade, Simmons has averaged 10.5 points on 41.2% shooting, with 13 rebounds and 10.4 assists a game (stats not out of line with the rest of his season). Philly is 9-2 when Joel Embiid plays this season and 0-3 when he sits (which kind of strengthens his early MVP case).

 
Nuggets small icon 12. Nuggets (7-7 LW 13). Denver’s starting five — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic — is outscoring teams by a wild 14.8 points per 100 possessions (thanks to an insane 130 offensive rating, covering up a struggling defense). The Nuggets second units were getting torched, but Mike Malone has found a stabilizing influence in the second unit with JaMychal Green at the five. Denver has the net rating of an 9-5 team but has been unlucky to start the season (we’re not holding that against them).

 
Grizzlies small icon 13. Grizzlies (7-6, LW 20). Memphis went 4-4 without him, but now Ja Morant is back — 17 points on 50% shooting and 8 assists a game in the two games he has played since returning from a sprained ankle — and the Grizzlies are back to getting in the paint and racking up wins. Memphis has won four in a row and now has two against a banged up Portland, then two against Sacramento. The winning streak could continue.

 
Warriors small icon 14. Warriors (7-6, LW 14). Monday’s comeback win against the Lakers was a reminder of the potency of the Stephen Curry/Draymond Green pick-and-roll and the challenges of containing a red-hot Curry. Games like that have some people trying to put him in the MVP conversation. I’m not sure the Warriors will win enough games for that conversation to really happen. The value of Green has been evident this season, the Warriors defense is 6.4 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court (and would be top five in the league), and the offense flows better with him keeping the ball moving.

 
Hawks small icon 15. Hawks (6-7 LW 16). Atlanta’s middle-of-the-pack offense this season doesn’t seem to live up to the talent level of players on the court. Part of the issue is just spacing. The Trae Young/John Collins pick-and-roll is destroying teams, forcing a switch and getting Collins rolling to the rim, but with Clint Capela lurking in the dunker’s spot the thing gets gummed up. Young playing off the ball more might help, but he is not comfortable there yet. Young also only shooting 27.4% from three this season — and taking too many 30-footers he can’t make at a Curry/Lillard pace — is also an issue.

 
Mavericks small icon 16. Mavericks (6-7, LW 10). Kristaps Porzingis has looked solid in his return, averaging 18.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game (his three-point shooting is still rounding into form, give it time). Dallas has been hit hard by the coronavirus, and at maybe the worst time as they head into a condensed and tough part of the schedule with 10 more games in 18 days (up to Feb. 4). They still have Luka Doncic, however, and he pulled out probably the best assist of the season so far this week.

 
Knicks small icon 17. Knicks (7-8, LW 23). A new coach and a new system haven’t changed how teams are defending the Knicks this season: Pack the paint (maybe with a zone), and dare them to shoot over the top and beat you. The Knicks did that pretty well in a quality win over Boston this week, then beat the stumbling Magic despite the threes not falling. Austin Rivers is solid from three, Obi Toppin is back healthy and he is a threat, and the team’s shooting should improve once Alec Burks returns. But teams are going to let Elfrid Payton and RJ Barrett fire away from deep.

 
Raptors small icon 18. Raptors (5-8, LW 27). Toronto’s offense has been on fire the past couple of weeks, a 119.5 net rating their last seven games, which is second-best in the NBA. Mostly that has come because the Raptors have been taking and making more threes. Toronto has been unlucky this season, they have the net rating of a 7-6 team, but they have struggled going 2-5 in clutch games (within five points in the final five minutes), including Pascal Siakam having back-to-back game-winners rim out. That kind of luck will even out over time, and the Toronto record will climb.

 
Hornets small icon 19. Hornets (6-8, LW 12). LaMelo Ball has been racking up the stats, accolades, and highlights early this season, but a lot of his passes have landed to Miles Bridges and that man can finish with the best of them (see the video below). The Hornets have dropped three in a row, including a pair to Toronto, with a little break they return to action with the Bulls and then a set of two against Orlando, two teams the Hornets are tied with in the rankings — string together wins and Charlotte can separate itself and have an early leg up in the playoff chase.

 
Thunder small icon 20. Thunder (6-7, LW 19). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander rightfully draws the “future cornerstone” talk in Oklahoma City, but Luguentz Dort continues to make plays and step up. This past week against the Bulls he had 21 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 steals, joining Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the only Thunder players with a 20/5/5 game before turning 22. The Thunder are 1-5 at home but 5-1 on the road and heading out for five in a row on the road starting tonight in Denver then heading to take on both Los Angeles teams.

 
Bulls small icon 21. Bulls (6-8, LW 28). During their four-game losing streak earlier this month, where Chicago was up by double digits in every game but could not hold on, coach Billy Donovan talked about this team learning to win. They have the last two, beating a good Dallas team and Houston — and they are doing it with an offense that has found its groove (117.3 offensive rating, sixth-best in the league, over their last seven games). Can that offense continue against some real tests in the Lakers and Celtics over the next seven days?

 
Heat small icon 22. Heat (5-7 LW 17). Miami is better than this ranking, but a combination of injuries and the coronavirus have hit this team’s rotation hard — it has had eight different starting lineups in 12 games. It’s hit the Heat’s transition defense particularly hard. Miami is in a string of two-game sets: they lost both to Philly, split with Detroit, and now head out on the road for two against Toronto followed by two against Brooklyn. Tough time to get their feet back under them.

 
Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (5-8, LW 21). Zion Williamson is still putting up numbers — 22.6 points and 8.3 rebounds a game, shooting 57.5%. However, he still reminds us of a young Blake Griffin — 71.3% of his shots come at the rim and 96.6% within 10 feet. His cutting, his athleticism, and his monster dunks matter because they are efficient shots (and his gravity draws defenders to create space for others), but the next step in his game is to improve his handles to create room for himself and add a jumper that defenses need to respect.

 
Cavaliers small icon 24. Cavaliers (6-7, LW 24). Cleveland did well jumping into the James Harden mega-trade, landing the center of the future in Jarrett Allen plus Taurean Prince (who got Kevin Porter Jr.’s old locker, which caused Porter to throw a tantrum that apparently will have him off the team soon). The Cavaliers will have to pay Allen this off-season when he is a restricted free agent, but he helps a team on both ends of the court and fits the timeline of Collin Sexton and Darius Garland. The center of the present, Andre Drummond, made his statement (and upped his trade value) with 33 points and 23 boards against the Knicks.

 
Rockets small icon 25. Rockets (4-8 LW 22). They found their James Harden trade and went with the package of picks (Brooklyn) over the established star (Ben Simmons and Philadelphia). Maybe that was about getting the franchise out of the luxury tax, but what the Rockets do with those picks (especially in 2024 and beyond) will determine how they did in this trade. Victor Oladipo looked sharp and scored 32 in his Rockets debut. Will he play well enough they want to keep him at a high salary, and will he want to stay or does Oladipo have his eyes elsewhere (such as Miami)?

 
Magic small icon 26. Magic (6-8 LW 18). Orlando has lost six games in a row after a fast start, and they are doing it by being bad on both ends of the floor, but particularly on offense where they miss Markelle Fultz, and have had to trust rookie Cole Anthony at the point. Anthony shows flashes of progress, but he continues to struggle and is still shooting 32.1% overall this season and 22.4% from three. Nikola Vucevic is playing at an All-Star level again, but it’s not enough and opponents work to limit his touches. Good news that Evan Fournier is set to return to action.

 
Kings small icon 27. Kings (5-9, LW 25). Sacramento’s defense is historically bad — their 121.8 defensive rating so far this season would not only be the worst all time, it would clear that bar by 4.2 points (“beating” the 2019 Cavaliers). Sacramento has given up 122 points in more than eight consecutive games. The main reason is that teams are hitting shots at a high rate against them from pretty much everywhere on the court — the Kings aren’t defending anything well, particularly the three ball. Their half-court defense is the worst in the league, and they don’t stop anyone in transition. Luke Walton’s seat may be getting warm (but is coach-in-waiting Alvin Gentry going to fix the defense?).

 
Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (3-8 LW 26). No team has been hit as hard by COVID-19 as Washington, which had six players test positive and hasn’t played in nine days and counting because of it. How they will come out of this is anybody’s guess, but if they return to action on Friday night it will be on the road against Milwaukee, the start of 7-of-9 on the road. A tough way to get their rhythm and conditioning back.

Pistons small icon 29. Pistons (3-10 LW 29). Detroit overpaid to get Jerami Grant out of Denver, but he has shown some promise with the ball in his hands this season averaging 24.9 points per game with an above-average 59.1 true shooting percentage on a 26.4 usage rate. A lot has been asked of him, but Grant is growing into the role. Stat that made me sad: Blake Griffin does not yet have a dunk this season.

 
30. Timberwolves (3-9, LW 30). If you’re looking for a bright spot, Minnesota’s defense has been less bad the last couple of weeks, almost middle of the pack (17th in the NBA over its last six games). That’s not accounting for wins, however, because of the team’s offensive struggles. The news of Karl-Anthony Towns testing positive for COVID-19 — the disease that killed his mother and took several other Towns family members — was a punch to the gut. Hopefully, Towns returns soon, healthy and back to his vintage self. Our thoughts are with him.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.

Report: Celtics reach out to former assistant Larranaga about joining Mazzulla’s staff

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The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to put on the bench next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man thrust into the head coach’s chair for a title contender in the wake of Ime Udoka’s suspension.

Who better than a guy who spent nine years on the Celtics’ bench? Boston reached out to Jay Larranaga, currently on the Clippers bench, about returning to the East Coast, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Clippers had no turnover on Tyronn Lue’s staff heading into this season. Mazzulla has become a trusted member of the Clippers staff, working a lot with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back up the Brink’s Truck, the Clippers will not stand in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a question of comfort level, lifestyle, and of course money for Larranaga.

The Celtics made Mazzulla their interim head coach after an investigation found a “volume of violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an improper relationship with a team staff member. So far the Celtics and Udoka have been able to keep the details of what happened under wraps, but league sources described the situation to NBC Sports as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details do find their way to the public.

For Celtics players, just getting back on the court, practicing Tuesday and focusing on basketball — not the turmoil around the franchise — was a good thing.

“Once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back out the court and review our defense and to talk about offense and doing what we do,” Al Horford told the Associated Press. “It’s a good thing to just play basketball. That’s what we’re here for. It’s important to just start this thing back up again.”

Getting another coach on the bench will be important for the Celtics as well.

Hawks trade Harkless, second-round pick to Thunder for Vit Krejci

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The Atlanta Hawks just saved some money, getting under the luxury tax line. The Oklahoma City Thunder picked up a second-round pick for their trouble of taking on a contract.

The Hawks have traded Moe Harkless and a second-round pick to the Thunder for Vit Krejci the teams announced (Shams Charania of The Athletic was first).

This saves Atlanta a little over $3 million, which moves them from above the luxury tax line to $1.3 million below it. While the almighty dollar was the primary motivation in the ATL, the Hawks also pick up a development project. Krejci showed a little promise in his rookie season, appearing in 30 games and averaging 6.2 points plus 3.4 rebounds a night, before having his knee scoped in April.

Krejci was on the bubble of making the team in Oklahoma City, now the Thunder pick up a second-round pick for a guy they might have waived anyway.

Harkless, 29, is on an expiring $4.6 million contract, which fits nicely into the Disabled Player Exception the Thunder were granted for Chet Holmgren’s season-ending foot injury.

The Thunder are expected to waive Harkless and buy him out, making him a free agent. However, they could keep him and see if another trade could net them another second-round pick.

Lonzo Ball says ‘I can’t run’ or jump; Bulls’ Donovan has to plan for extended absence

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
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Officially, Lonzo Ball will be out 4-6 weeks after getting his knee scoped this week.

However, this is his second surgery on his left knee this year — he had meniscus surgery in January, after which he was never able to return to the court — and there are concerns Ball could miss significant time again. And coach Billy Donovan has no choice but to plan for an extended absence.

Ball did a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday and it’s hard to come away from what he said overly optimistic. Rob Schaefer reported on the call for NBC Sports Chicago:

“Literally, I really can’t run. I can’t run or jump. There’s a range from, like, 30 to 60 degrees when my knee is bent that I have, like, no force and I can’t, like, catch myself. Until I can do those things I can’t play,” Ball said. “I did rehab, it was getting better, but it was not to a point where I could get out there and run full speed or jump. So surgery is the next step.”

The symptoms are something Ball said he has never dealt with and have left doctors, in his words, “a little surprised.”

It’s never good when doctors are surprised. Ball said the doctors don’t see anything on the MRI, but there is clearly something wrong, so they are going in and looking to find the issue and fix it.

Ball has been diligent in his recovery work from the start, the problem was pain in his knee. Something was still not right after the first surgery. Whatever it is.

The 4-6 week timeline would have Ball back in early November, but you know they will be overly cautious with him after the past year. Coach Billy Donovan was honest — he has to plan for a season without Ball.

The Bulls need Ball in a deep and challenging East. He brings defense, pushes the pace in transition, and takes care of the rock. Chicago has other players who can do those things individually — Alex Caruso can defend, Coby White pushes in transition, Goran Dragic takes care of the ball — but the Bulls lack one player who can do all those things. At least they lack one until Ball returns.

Whenever that may be.